In the six years that Punit Malhotra has spent away from Bollywood, he says that he has spent a lot of time working on himself, mastering his craft and working ‘damn hard’.

Besides making SOTY 2, he also started the Dharma 2.0 film department, which deals with ad film production. He says his motto for the last few years has been ‘look down and work hard’. He’s also about to complete 19 years with Dharma Productions – not many know that he worked with Karan Johar in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.

Your last film, Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, didn’t exactly set the cash registers ringing. Was that the reason you took a six-year-long break before coming back with Student of the Year 2?

 I was depressed for eight months post-Gori. It took me time to get a grip of things. Frankly, there were a lot of things that I had to introspect about after that film. I wouldn’t blame anyone, I made mistakes. I had to learn from them, so I was making sure I was ticking all the boxes. SOTY 2 was supposed to release last year, but we then pushed it for six months, and thank god for that – I got more time with the film. SOTY 2 was actually supposed to release two years ago, based on a different draft, but three months before the shoot, I pulled the plug on the film. I felt that something was off about it, and we re-wrote the film, which is why it took this long. So yes, post-Gori, it has been a long journey, because I wanted to do it right. Gori taught me a lot of things, like how you should not alter the script to fit a cast.

In the interim, we also started a new division at Dharma, called 2.0, which I run. I’ve directed about 1,000 ad films overall – I just needed to keep working. Working really helped me recover and get my bearings and understanding back. The ad division took off really well, so that has also taken a lot of my time in the last six years. Initially, I didn’t want to make SOTY 2, but Karan (Johar) was insistent that I make it, so we wrote a lot of different drafts to see where we could take the story. My motto in the last six years has been ‘head down and work hard’ – I’ve never worked this hard in my life. I realised what I enjoyed the most, which was to be on film sets – I missed that, and I wanted to be back.

Was there a change of approach in you, as an ad film director and feature film director?

I don’t think anyone changes beyond a point. The direction is the same, and now everyone is doing both ads and features. The important thing for me is to be on the set, to direct – that is the high. Our edit (of SOTY 2) was locked a long time back, we have already completed our VFX, but even now we keep on making small changes and tweaks here and there. The madness of the movies is what I enjoy the most, and honestly, you need to be mad to enjoy movies. My corporate friends believe I’m the biggest idiot in the world, and I don’t think their world is mad enough. I love movies.

 Imran Khan and Sonam Kapoor weren’t newcomers during your first film, but you were, and now you aren’t a newcomer, but Tara Sutaria and Ananya Panday are. What’s that journey been like?

There was a lot of pressure. I used to socially hang out with Bhavana and Chunky Panday (Ananya’s parents), but I never thought that one day I would work with their daughter. We auditioned Ananya, and there were 100 other girls who auditioned – there were about 5-10 whom we wanted to test and among all of them, Ananya was the more suitable candidate. Even Tara auditioned as we knew her through an agency. Tiger was anyway a star, and over the course of making the film, we became very good friends.

With these two girls, one literally had to hand-hold them and say ‘do this’ and ‘do that’. That was fun, but there was pressure as well. I didn’t expect it to be that way, but again my ad experience helped me, as you are dealing with a lot of new talent there, you are working with models, so you need to have that kind of patience. But to give credit where it is due, the girls were superb.

 Ananya looks very timid and soft-spoken, but she isn’t. Tara was far more trained in that sense, but we still had to work with her to get her out of her comfort zone.

As soon as the trailer was released, there was a flood of memes making fun of the film. How are you taking that?

The memes that are coming out are hilarious – someone actually got worried and called to ask if I was alright. I told him we are loving it, this is the film you are going to make memes about, I would have been upset if there were no memes. You make a high school film for the youth, So SOTY 2 deserves those memes. I’m very happy with these reactions.

Tiger is known more for his action roles than his romantic roles. How was it to direct him?

It was crazy. I can assure you there are less stunts here than in any other film of his. We would constantly fight, with me telling Tiger ‘you can’t do this!’ What I liked here is that we’ve done the younger version of his action avatar. He was coming from Baaghi 2, where he had taken on a 100 people, so the challenge was to show him like a college boy who gets beaten up by people. So when he does a certain kind of jump in the film, there is a story and a reason behind it.

Coming to romance, he hasn’t done those scenes before, so that was a challenge. He is dubbing currently, and keeps on saying ‘this is not my zone, this is not my zone’. I don’t think he has ever been in a space where he’s kissed three girls in a film! I don’t think he’s looked nicer and better than this, though. it was fun presenting him like this.

What was Karan’s reaction when you told him you wanted to pull the plug, and how did he react to the final script?

 Karan Johar is the best and the most lavish producer, he spoils you by pampering you. He goes with what the director wants. He was very happy to make the film. He told me ‘you want to make this film, make it’, but when I told him about my reservations, he said he had the same reservations. So when I asked him if I can pull the plug, he said yes. When I went back to him with the final draft, he liked it and felt we were on the right track, and when he saw the complete film, he was pleasantly surprised and happy.

Did you miss Imran Khan on this film, since your earlier films had him as the lead?

 I’m very good friends with him. I know exactly what he’s doing right now. We produced a short film with him – the one on the Mangalyaan project – and he’s not someone who will be out of my films. I’ve always missed Imran. Tiger was very excited to do SOTY 2, and during the process, we’ve become good friends. I’d like to make many more with him. After seeing SOTY 2, Tiger told me that I’m an action director, and I need to make an action film next and not a romcom.

You wanted to be an actor – what happened to that?

What acting career? I closed that chapter way back in 2006. Where is the time now?

Who are the directors you look up to?

Karan, obviously. I really like Rohit Shetty, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Rajkumar Hirani. I get very excited when an Anurag Basu film is up for release, I love his work. I also love Christopher Nolan and Guy Ritchie – I would love to make cool action films like him.